Slip in a coin or two, grab a sandwich and pie, sit down, eat...and you didn’t even have to tip a waitperson.

No, I am not referring to vending machines, but the Automat – around since the 1800s but made more popular by the 1940s thru the 1960s. In an automat, you had window slots all thru the room – kind of like a post office – where you choose, pay, open the window and grab your food of choice. Once a window slot was emptied, there were employees on the other side who kept making sandwiches, cutting slices of pie, and keeping them filled. The most fondly remembered chain of automats were the Horn & Hardart locations. Sounds simple - but for me, I’d rather be waited on and have some friendly banter with a waitperson...and I don’t mind tipping.

Even though some type of food or drink dispensing has been around for centuries, automats as we know them were created in the 19th Century, motivated by the desire to NOT tip a server. In the 1800s, servers were known to be annoying, impatient...and downright grouchy.

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In the 1890s, push-button eateries popped up in Germany and the Netherlands, as well as rumors of them coming to America.

1902 – The first Horn & Hardart Automat opens in Philadelphia.
1902 – Harcombe Automat opens in New York City.
1912 – The first New York City Horn & Hardart Automat opens.
1917 – The Automat Company of New England runs three automats in Boston.
1921 – Automatic Lunch Room No. 1 opens in Detroit, with more on the way throughout Michigan.
1925 – Quick Lunch Company has machines that deliver food at the drop of a coin. 1930 – The Merry-Go-Round café, where a conveyor belt brings your food, opens in Los Angeles.

After World War II, when people began living their lives again, automats became extremely popular. They showed up in movies, magazines, and many major cities. This explosion of automat dining lasted into the 60s until the original Horn & Hardart Automats closed in 1969. Even the current president of H&H said automats had “already reached their peak.”

The Los Angeles Times pounded the final nail in the coffin when they stated the automat was now “a museum piece, inefficient and slow, in a computerized world.”

Take a look at the photo gallery below.

Automats, Food for the Impatient: 1890s-1960s


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Gallery Credit: John Robinson




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